Joan Baldwin’s Marshes
by Elizabeth Michelman
At its inception following World War I, Surrealism was a mostly male enclave. Its female adherents went unacclaimed until later, when their work was taken up by the growing feminist movement. Successive generations of women artists appropriated surrealistic technique, with its bizarre juxtapositions and appeal to the unconscious, as a means to challenge the assumptions underlying a male-dominated discourse about the inner experience and erotic imagination of women.
Joan Baldwin’s new oil paintings, ostensibly of harmless Cape Cod imagery, continue to tweak surrealism’s still-evolving methods. She undermines conventional reality with cool humor and superb technical skill to reveal the primal passions that govern emotion and shape relationships.
A former commercial illustrator of furniture that did not yet exist, Baldwin has always been gifted at inventing forms and massaging detail in a hyper-realistic mode. In years past, she peopled her fantasy environments with tiny tables, chairs and beds enacting sexually charged dramas. Her exhibition of recent seaside scenes appearing in June at the Kingston Gallery steps closer to our biological species. The soothing nooks and expanses of sandy salt-marsh camouflage a less serene domain whose wild denizens, a menagerie of chipmunks, chickens, snakes and crabs, roam a libidinous terrain.
Baldwin admires contemporary painter Eric Fischl’s salacious scenes insinuating perverse sexuality and aggression. Her own sensibility, however, is interiorized and understated. The controlled vibrations between her diminutive protagonists are all the more unsettling for being kept under wraps. Once Baldwin’s camera-like clarity draws us close, her painterly strategies coerce us into complicity. One needs to gain some distance from the subject matter to pick out the devious brushstrokes, compositional ploys and sleight-of-hand adjustments of planes that focus our attention.
She builds her imagery from snapshots taken on her summer walks through the Nauset marshes. From the get-go, Baldwin is alive to suggestive possibilities in the scraggly underbrush and tide-washed swirls of matted beach grass, with their gently varied colors, intricate patterns and vague shadows. Later on, in the studio, she interweaves images of creatures photographed in their habitats into her own settings. While withholding her private script, she entices us across an ill-defined boundary to spin our own stories around these animal behaviors and concerns so similar to our own. We may believe ourselves neutral; yet we end up feeling as much spies as spectators.